By John E. McIntyre
The Baltimore Sun
4:03 PM EST, January 30, 2013
Here in Wordville, news of the discovery of a fresh superstition about language is as exciting as the discovery of a hitherto-unknown tribal society in Borneo would be to an anthropologist. And, as with the anthropological discovery, the novelty will be found to coincide with certain human universals.
A correspondent has informed Arnold Zwicky of an invented rule of grammar and usage that he had never encountered. (Nor had I.) A teacher in Germany, a Briton, solemnly informs students that "there was used for relatively short distances, over there for significantly longer distances."
It is, of course, nonsense. But Arnold understands the underlying human constant: The teacher "wanted there andover there to be crisply distinguished in meaning, so that (except for some fuzziness as to what constitutes a short distance vs. a long one) one and only one of them is usable in any particular context. This is one case of what I’ve called One Right Way reasoning, the effect of which is to legislate against variation, in favor of complementary distribution."
Copy editors have a constitutional weakness for this sort of rule-making, as one can see from the stubborn persistence of the belief that there is a meaningful distinction between over and more than.*
Or look at H.W. Fowler's innocent suggestion that it might be a good thing to distinguish between which and that clauses, reserving the former for nonrestrictive senses and the latter for restrictive senses. In general, not a bad idea, but pedagogues and editors alike have fossilized it into a Rule that is neither entirely workable or universally observed.
Make no mistake: It is the labor of editors, one worthy of Hercules, to make and maintain precise discriminations of meaning. But it is also our task to ascertain that the discriminations we identify are, in fact, meaningful. Otherwise, we end up prisoners of our own crotchets.
*Hey, Associated Press Stylebook, when are you going to ditch that hoary misapprehension?
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